An Interview with Lexia’s Chief Learning Officer, Liz Brooke
2020 has brought various unique challenges for school districts around the country that, due to COVID-19, found themselves needing to adapt to remote learning practically overnight. In an interview with Kevin Hogan for his podcast Remote Possibilities by MarketScale, Dr. Liz Brooke, Lexia’s chief learning officer, discussed Lexia’s approach to helping educators through this transition, avoiding the “COVID slide,” and preparing for a successful fall semester.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kevin Hogan, Remote Possibilities: Liz, thanks very much for joining us. Maybe we could start off and you could talk a little bit about Lexia Learning. Then, unfortunately, we're going to have to dig into the particulars of one of the biggest issues that's involved in all this madness with the pandemic: the COVID slide. So, start us off with a little bit about Lexia Learning and your work there.
Liz Brooke, Lexia: Lexia was founded over 35 years ago, using grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and it was founded by a father who had a son who was a struggling reader. And even back in 1984, this father thought, How can I use technology to bring these principles that are based in the science of reading to more students across the country who cannot read? And so we've been founded on research, efficacy remains foundational to everything we do, and we are continuing to use technology in an adaptive blended learning framework. Really, the last 35 years have been preparing us for this environment we're in currently. We have both curriculum products as well as assessment products, ranging from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. And, of course, we have professional learning services that support the implementation of those programs in the schools.
Bringing blended learning home
KH: So you say with such a long history and background, you were prepared for this moment, if anyone could have been prepared for something like this. Talk a little bit about how your company has pivoted as a result of this, and some of the insights you can pull out of this rapid transition to remote learning.
LB: Absolutely. Much like the rest of the country, we started to see things shifting really around March 13th or 15th, when most of the schools across the country closed down or shifted to remote learning or digital learning. Lexia Learning offered free, unlimited access to our programs to any customers that even had one license in one of their schools—and we extended that offer to their whole district. That offer was made across the country. We offered this to our current customers because we knew they were familiar with Lexia, but we wanted to expand their reach of the program. We didn't want to approach new customers and confuse them or [make them] think we're trying to take advantage of this situation. We certainly were open to having people come to us if they were interested, but we had more than 10,000 schools take us up on that offer and really start using the program.
KH: Wow, and pre-pandemic, was your service set up to support a remote environment?
LB: Well, actually, because of the adaptive blended learning framework, there was always home use of some degree in the program because they were either using the online program or offline materials that they could do as homework. For your listeners that may not be familiar, a blended learning framework means that there's a combination of online learning and typically a teacher-led portion done in a classroom, or “brick and mortar.” And then we have very powerful data that connects those two. So even before COVID, there was some element of using the program in a combination of in-classroom and at home, or also in before-school and after-school programs. So, absolutely, that was not a transition for us. That was how our program was designed.
Parents step up
KH: One of the other things that I found interesting in having conversations about this switch is the involvement of parents in the education of their children. I can speak for myself that I had closer encounters with my kids’ teachers over the past three months than I had over the entirety of their education. How has that changed with your product?
LB: That's a great question. There are two types of offline materials that go along with what the students are doing online. We have something called Lexia Lessons® that are typically teacher-led, but they're written in such a way that they're fairly scripted. And we do that because we know across the country that teachers are not always provided the education in the science of reading and may not have all the underlying knowledge to teach all of the various skills across the spectrum. So, they're scripted in such a way that teachers typically deliver those. Those were available to parents, and some teachers did ask the parents to deliver those; however, we saw many teachers delivering those remotely via Zoom or Google Classroom.
The second piece was really where the parents came in more explicitly, which is called Lexia Skill Builders®. Those are designed for when the students have demonstrated mastery online of a particular skill, let's say short vowels. In order for the students to build their automaticity, meaning they can quickly identify those short vowels and generalize that knowledge to a different setting—so be able to still do short vowels, not on the computer—we offer these worksheet-type activities where they can practice. Those Skill Builders became something that we knew, based on the student’s performance, that they should be able to do fairly independently but have some parent involvement. So those activities were sent via PDF, or some schools actually printed out packets and mailed them home.
I mentioned that we pivoted in terms of a learn-from-home offer for our schools, but very quickly, our customer success and our curriculum and assessment teams also pivoted and posted additional resources for parents around ideas of how to use the Skill Builders, or other ideas for what they could do at home with their children.
Facing the digital divide
KH: Interesting. So, there's been a lot of analysis of the spring as not really being successful in terms of the transition. Some of the districts that I've spoken to consider it a success that they were just able to get devices into the kids’ hands and have a connection through the end of the year. And now, they don't even think about assessment or any sort of learning goals. What has your experience been with districts this spring? Is that kind of accurate, or do you think it's a little overblown and that we should be giving some of these districts more credit than they're getting?
LB: It definitely varies across the country. We've seen everything from, to your point, some districts not managing to get everybody connected or get everybody a device. And in fact, in one panel I was involved with, they were saying that they don't even have the correct phone numbers for a lot of the parents, so they were even trying to get the correct contact information for a good portion of this. So, it ranges from those types of concerns to schools that did have—whether it was Lexia or another program—one-to-one devices. They did use blended learning programs and—I wouldn't say flawlessly, but fairly seamlessly—transitioned to remote learning because the students were familiar with the programs and everybody had connectivity. And those issues were kind of solved before because, to be fair to the schools and districts, the lights went out one afternoon and they were told it'll be a couple of weeks and they never came back. So, there was the preparation and the knowledge, whether or not you used a completely blended learning program or even something like Google Classroom. There were different levels of experience and knowledge before COVID, and that I think really made a difference.
In terms of the learning goals, in some districts, it was about access and equitable access, and they couldn't focus on the learning goals. Another big focus—which we help support as well, with the teacher-led portion—is that social-emotional connection. We couldn't go strictly digital and not have any interaction with students. I taught first grade many years ago now, but I still have such a solid memory of that connection with my class. And so a lot of schools focused on that element of it.
What I would say about assessment is that all states canceled their end-of-year assessments. So for any program that is being considered for use in this time period as well as in the fall, because we know we're going to have similar situations in the fall of some hybrid or whatnot, we need to have the ability to assess, identify skill gaps, and then be able to close those skill gaps for these students so that the COVID slide on top of the summer slide does not really continue throughout the next school year.
For fall, flexibility is key
KH: That leads up to my next question about the fall. It seems like there is kind of a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and then something in the middle—worst case being that complete remote has to continue. Best case is we go back to what was normal, which doesn't seem likely either. So it seems like it's going to be some sort of hybrid situation. Do you see any advantages to that when it comes to personalized learning, in terms of staggering students to go in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday? As you pull out your crystal ball and look forward, what do you see there?
LB: Yeah, I definitely agree it's going to be on the continuum. And I think a few things: You mentioned personalized learning, and I think that is potentially a positive of the remote learning environment because we know teachers weren't able to recreate the exact 6-hour school day in the remote environment. Therefore, they had to use their small-group Zooms, or even sometimes whole-class meetings, in a very targeted way. And that, I do think, is a benefit, because they were trying to identify if they had a one-on-one Zoom or a small group again, how to personalize the instruction for those students versus teaching to the whole class.
But I do think again that the keyword here is flexibility. Even if they start with going back to school (the 100% back to school or even the staggered back to school Monday, Wednesday, Friday)—I hope this doesn't happen, but there could be another surge. And there could be another day where the lights go out and they're told not to come back. So whatever programs they pick and that they're learning and training their teachers on should have flexibility. I've heard it as “from bricks to clicks,” or “from classroom to the cloud” is kind of how I talk about it, but something that can seamlessly transition from being in a physical room with the teacher to being in a remote environment but still having a teacher presence. We can't go 100% digital and lose that human social interaction, so flexibility is key.
Another keyword is assessment capabilities. In Lexia, we have our embedded Assessment Without Testing®, which is capturing every click of the mouse or tap of the iPad and helping to analyze and aggregate the performance level of the students—and, maybe more importantly now, the skill gaps, so that the teachers can target those skill gaps.
So, flexibility, assessment capabilities, and then efficacy, because there are so many programs out there that schools are being offered for free or at “bargain-basement prices,” so to speak. And we don't have time to waste on programs that don't work. These students have already been challenged in their learning, and we now need programs that have been proven to make more than one year of growth for one year of instruction for these students. We need something that can accelerate and close the gaps not only for our struggling readers, but all of our readers, because all students are going to have had some sort of learning loss. Some students will quickly recover from that, or will have very minimal learning loss. Other students will have, as the research on summer slide says, roughly a month of learning loss. But we know both the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and others who are predicting the COVID slide are showing more significant losses. So, I think, flexibility, assessment capabilities, and efficacy are really the three key tools no matter what model you have, because it's probably going to change.
“Show me the data”
KH: Absolutely, it's a constantly evolving situation day to day, almost. You mentioned your strategies early on where you offered your current customers full access for every student, but not for new customers. I find that interesting, because there is a little bit of back and forth on what appears—and I think is genuine—to be the generosity of technology companies across the board and telco companies to assist people with getting connected. But now, there's some conversation about A: what happens when that trial period ends, which is now, and then B: looking forward to what most certainly will be pretty drastic budget cuts for districts to enable anything, let alone technology and software. Where do you see your strategy with those aspects going forward?
LB: Everybody's talking about the CARES Act and the GEAR funds and all of that, but those are federal dollars, which I believe make up only roughly 10% of the school budgets. The rest is state and local, which, to your point, are seeing some cuts. That's why I'm concerned, because some programs or companies may have offered their products for free during this period, and now they're offering very, very reduced prices, which would be appealing to anybody who's facing tighter budgets. However, they aren't proven to work. And again, I want to be clear that it's not that we're not working with new schools and districts; we certainly are. In fact, more and more schools are reaching out because we do have those things I mentioned. Both of our programs—Lexia® Core5® Reading and Lexia® PowerUp Literacy®, which are elementary and secondary—have strong ratings on Evidence for ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) in terms of the rigor of the research, but maybe more importantly, have large-effect sizes of how impactful the intervention is in the instruction.
We have a robust research group at Lexia that is helping customers look at their data pre-COVID and during COVID to see how many of their students remained engaged. We had a surge in educator engagement, looking at the data, and still see the progress that they made even during this. So schools and districts are looking at their own data or those of neighboring schools if they're new to Lexia, and they're choosing to spend their money on a program that will work. And so that is our approach, to show them their data. You know, as Cuba Gooding Jr. says, “Show me the money,” right? We showed them the data. That's how we help schools think about it because we understand that their dollars are precious, so we want them to spend on something that can be flexible for them but, most importantly, can be effective at helping these students to continue to learn in this environment.
KH: You've had the opportunity to look at the data over the past several weeks and months. What is your executive summary? I hope it's hopeful!
LB: Well, it is and it isn't. Even pre-COVID, we were in about 14,000 schools across the country in some capacity, and we've added additional schools and more students during this. We did see a divide in terms of access. Even though they had access to the program, they may not have had a device to log on. When looking at a map across the United States, we did see pockets of the country where student usage was low, and that was also connected with areas of low socioeconomic status or where we had heard challenges around connectivity. So that supports the data around the digital divide.
However, we will say that what we saw were two things: one was an increased educator engagement—they were relying on the data because they didn't have other sources of data, and they also didn't have the physical in-class observations. They still had some observations via Zoom, but we saw a huge increase in educator use of the data, which is great. And then we saw the students who were logging on were [doing so] for more minutes and making more progress, so learning more skills—that is a positive. So when we can solve the digital divide issues, we saw that students were still learning, educators were finding the data helpful to specifically target skill gaps, and, again, going back to that personalization, we really have to think about the quality of our instruction because we can't necessarily increase the quantity like we might do in a 6-hour school day. It has to be really targeted, explicit, and personalized to that student or small group of students.
KH: So maybe this spring it was necessary to just stay connected or even get connected in the first place. And going forward in this school year, districts have had that experience and the companies that provide those districts with services have had that experience to where we can make improvement.
LB: Right, and I think that's the other thing I should add: that we also did offer our professional learning services for free to all of these schools. Our customer success team and customer support was a huge part of it. This absolutely was a learning period for those schools that hadn't used blended learning before, or they had to have the professional learning for all their teachers. ... I do think trying to figure out the right balance is important, because as we go back in the fall, many offices are still encouraging work from home. Some parents may still be at home, but others may be going back to work. And so I do still think that is something that schools are working through: How do they balance parent involvement versus teacher involvement? But this was really a period of learning and growing and getting some things in place for the fall. And that’s where I think some of those schools that were on the far end of the spectrum—not even having the right parent phone numbers, in some cases—may be still struggling with some of that learning, but I am hopeful for the fall because I think there are pros and cons that have come out of this. I think the idea of personalized learning and allowing the students to learn, potentially, at their own pace and path while still engaging with the teacher and still engaging with their peers, and having that blended approach, is going to be really impactful for these students.
KH: Well, that said, I'd love to finish on a glass half full, especially during these times. So, Liz, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
LB: Sure. Thanks for having me, Kevin.
Would you like to find out how Lexia Learning can help your school or district experience success as we enter a new school year this fall? Learn more about our literacy programs and how we can support educators, students, and parents through personalized learning.
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